With over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq behind the American people, many of us in DC have become accustomed to starting conversations about new international developments while assuming that every participant understands the complex history and context involved with these complicated international regions.

When those of us who have been a part of the U.S. national security apparatus do this, we commit a disservice to our audiences. The truth is that for all the ink spent on these issues, we have largely failed to make foreign policy issues accessible to the millions of Americans who have never spent significant time working in government or living abroad.


Recently, over dinner, my wife and I were discussing these intricate international developments, and I realized exactly how much our political and military leaders have failed to distill the breaking news into its most important messages or offer relevant context. An informed history of the region and its politics would provide a clear pathway to understanding. My wife is a great sounding board, and though she doesn’t work in foreign affairs, she asks insightful questions that give new perspective to my background in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

As we chatted, she began to understand the issues surrounding ISIS more clearly and I began to understand that too often our exposure to these topics is via media commentators who fail to ask exceptionally pedigreed guests the salient and insightful questions that would give clarity to the issue. One anchor interviewed three terrorism experts about the most recent ISIS beheading, only to end the interview with “Well, this is all terrifying.”

That is, of course, the point of terrorism.

Similarly, political and military leaders who sit in the guest chair have a deep and intimate knowledge of the issues at hand but sometimes avoid them, ducking questions about the underlying logic or the associated costs. These are the conversations we should be having at dinner, and for those looking to widen their perspective as the U.S. embarks on another confrontation abroad and looks to avert one on its own shores, there are three main points that are important to know.

First, what is ISIS? As President Obama said, ISIS is neither Islamic nor a State. ISIS is a group that, like al-Qa’eda, has the same general goal of establishing a caliphate, or an Islamic zone led by a supreme religious and political leader known as a caliph (a “successor” to the prophet Muhammad). They adhere to an extreme form of Islam – even by al-Qa’eda standards.

Al-Qa’eda is a Salafi group practicing the harsh administration of Sharia law manifested in violence against and ejection of apostates (non-believers) from Islamic lands. ISIS, on the other hand, practices their own subjective interpretation of Islam that, as former CIA officer Bob Baer recently observed, justifies a Crusade-like approach to vanquishing enemies and infidels. They give the vanquished one choice: convert to ISIS’ theology on the spot or die immediately. These are differences that even al-Qa’eda abhors.

While ISIS is Sunni, the largest branch of Islam, they execute other Sunnis who don’t convert to this extremist ideology. They also kill other Islamists like Kurds and Shia and actively seek to capture Brits, Americans, and Jews, who they execute in high-profile and media-focused ways that provide a publicity benefit and recruitment tool. They kill mercilessly and indiscriminately; earlier this year, ISIS militants reportedly killed at least 1,000 Iraqi military cadets in Tikrit, Iraq, one of many incidents of mass brutality.

Where does ISIS operate? ISIS’ efforts are nominally focused on establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but do not let the name fool you. They generally reject the concept of national borders as an imperialistic imposition by the apostates. That is why bordering countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are also vulnerable to the same factors that allowed ISIS to take hold. Fear that ISIS might spread and an interest in framing the effort to stop it as something other than a U.S.-branded military action is why the U.S. sought to have Sunni Arab participation in the anti-ISIS campaign.

Non-bordering states, too, have cause for concern. Those with similar underlying social factors – disenfranchised youth, lack of economic opportunity, a history of repression, and others – are also vulnerable. Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are thousands of miles away but have histories suggesting they could be risk areas.

Nigeria and Egypt, too, have concerning social factors coupled with a history of insurgent groups. Through this lens, the scope of the ISIS risk increases and pockets of unrest across the zone start to look more related. Thus, the entire international community should be concerned about all of these conflict zones linking together under a charismatic leader or unified command structure.

Finally, we in the USA should be concerned about the ISIS threat. Make no mistake – the same underlying social factors that foster support for ISIS in the Middle East are also present within our own borders. The United States must immediately stop thinking in terms of national borders and start thinking in terms of susceptible populations.

Governments in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and other Western countries know that passport holders have gone to Syria to fight with pro-Islamist forces against the Assad regime. After radicalization in the region, there is the possibility that they may return home and take action. Others may have been radicalized without ever setting foot in a war zone by finding ISIS’ ideology an answer to their discontent. This is a real threat indeed.

These topics are frequent at my dinner table. As Americans who vote, pay taxes and face risks in our daily lives, we are finding a way to translate ‘inside the Beltway’ perspectives about counterterrorism and counter insurgency into the basic questions that all Americans should be asking. Whatever your background, talking about ISIS over dinner can and should be a positive step toward appropriately answering the hard questions of our time. When Americans are informed about the risks associated with an adversary, the costs of engagement, and of lack of engagement, we make the right choices.

Lebson served at the Pentagon from 2007-2009, the National Security Council from 2009-2011, and was the chief architect of Australia’s Strategic Risk Assessment from 2011-2013. He is currently a senior vice president with LEVICK and can be reached at elebson@levick.com.